The social media giants are stuck in a vise as both Democrats and the Trump campaign look for an edge by accusing the platforms of favoring the other side.
On one side are Democrats, who are demanding that Facebook and Twitter censor President Trump and his campaign.
This week, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey demanding that Trump be suspended and the Democratic National Committee ripped Facebook for refusing to fact check – and remove – Trump campaign ads it said are misleading.
Democrats are deeply worried that Trump will spend hundreds of millions of dollars and leverage his massive social media following to distort public perceptions, echoing concerns from 2016 when foreign agents used the platforms to promote misinformation.
On the other end are Trump and the Republicans, who have long held that conservative voices are being suppressed by Silicon Valley liberals reacting to elite media outrage at the president and his supporters.
Underscoring the pressure on the social media giants – this week, both Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Donald Trump Jr., a top surrogate for his father’s reelection campaign – renewed their calls for the government to dismantle the tech giants, albeit for very different reasons.
“The prevailing view from both sides now is that these companies have become so large and so important in political and social life that there needs to be some sort of government intervention,” said Shannon McGregor, a professor of communications at the University of Utah. “What that looks like could depend on the outcome of the election.”
The Trump campaign’s move to put $10 million behind ads alleging that former Vice President Joe Biden pushed for a Ukrainian prosecutor to be fired to protect his son Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company that was under investigation, was a tipping point for many Democrats.
The Obama administration has long said it wanted the prosecutor fired for not doing enough to root out corruption. There is no evidence that Biden acted to protect his son, although the appearance of a conflict of interest has become a drag on his campaign.
Democrats are furious over the ads, which are running across cable news and on Facebook, Google, YouTube, Spotify and Pandora.
Seema Nanda, the DNC’s CEO, blasted Facebook, saying the company is allowing Trump to “mislead the American people on their platform unimpeded.”
And Daniel Wessel, the deputy war room director at the DNC, said Facebook has a responsibility to remove the Trump campaign’s Biden-Ukraine ad in particular.
“Any false ad should be fact checked and removed, including this one,” Wessel said. “Facebook owes that to its users. Trump’s ad is part of an effort to push a false narrative intended to deceive and distract from the fact that he pressured a foreign leader to investigate a political rival in order to help his reelection, while withholding critical U.S. aid to that country – and his own White House released a document that proves it.
“We all have a role to play in combating these lies, and that includes Facebook,” Wessel said.
Democrats are alarmed by Trump’s massive fundraising haul and his campaign’s plans to spend heavily online.
The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee combined to raise a staggering $125 million in the third quarter. The Trump campaign has spent at least $20 million on Facebook ads since May.
Laura Edelson, a researcher who analyzes Facebook ads at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, told The Hill that Facebook pages belonging to Trump and Vice President Pence have combined to run more than 2,000 ads about impeachment in the past week alone.
Together, those ads cost the campaign somewhere between $900,000 and $2.8 million and reached about 18 million viewers, according to Edelson.
Facebook has created an independent fact-checking team with power to suppress posts it determines to be dishonest or misleading. However, statements and most ads from politicians are exempt.
“We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny,” Facebook vice president Nick Clegg wrote in a blog post this week.
Harris has pushed the issue further, demanding that Dorsey suspend Trump from Twitter, the president’s favorite forum for venting his frustration with Democrats and the news media to his 65 million followers.
“These are blatant threats,” Harris wrote. “We need a civil society, not a civil war.”
Twitter has not yet responded, but many have argued that the president’s thoughts on the platform are of public interest.
Republicans, meanwhile, are furious at what they see as a direct challenge to their First Amendment protections for political speech. They say Biden’s perceived conflict of interest in Ukraine is fair game, even if there is no hard evidence of impropriety, and that Biden is free to use his First Amendment rights to explain why he didn’t recuse himself from the Obama administration’s involvement in the country.
“It’s terrifying,” said Andy Surabian, a GOP strategist and former White House official. “Their solution to losing an argument is to ask giant corporations to censor the side making the argument. It’s the definition of authoritarianism and sadly it fits perfectly within the Democrat Party of 2019.”
And some Democrats are unnerved by Harris’s proposal to ban Trump from Twitter, including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a 2020 presidential candidate who has clashed with Harris.
“We can’t just cancel or shutdown or silence those who we disagree with or who hold different views or who say things even that we strongly disagree with or abhor,” Gabbard told NBC News. “These freedoms and principles enshrined in our Constitution are things that we have to take very seriously. I and so many others who wear the uniform of this country are willing to give our lives to protect and defend this freedom of speech, even for those saying things that we disagree with.”
But Republicans are applying their own pressure, furthering the notion that the social media giants are already censoring their speech out of liberal bias and anger at Trump.
Trump Jr. claims Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has repeatedly admitted to him that algorithmic “errors” have hidden his content or caused him to lose followers.
“The greatest threat to free speech and our democracy today is not the government, but the technology giants that deplatform people at the behest of liberals and then justify the action as ‘combating hate’ and making the internet somehow safer,” Trump Jr. wrote in an op-ed this week at The Hill.
“If Big Tech keeps kowtowing to this, it might very well soon regret it,” he said.
Democrats say Republicans are being hypocritical by demanding the government stay out of the private sector when it suits them but threatening to break up companies they disagree with.
“The pro-Trump Republicans who rail against social media companies for having what they perceive as anti-conservative bias can’t have it both ways,” said David Goodfriend, the president of The Goodfriend Group, whose clients include technology companies.
“They either must insist that these companies police the content on their platforms, including Tweets from the president, or they must concede the platforms should not police anyone’s content. But they can’t pick and choose which principle they want depending on which content they like and don’t like.”